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The Evolution of Imperial Japan’s War Medals (1875-1945)

Article about: The Evolution of Japan’s War Medals (1875-1945) Prolog; Modernization of Japan, 200 years to catch up on As the era of the Shogun and the Samurai drew to a close, and sovereignty returned to

  1. #11


    I have 1 Japanese medal,its the 3rd from the right bottom row.

  2. #12


    Background of the Design

    Three features the army wanted were;

    1. Material should be recycled iron from captured enemy equipment instead of silver as in the 1874 War Medal. Perhaps the army was thinking about melting down captured enemy rifles at this point, as they suggested iron as the material of choice. Delicate and elaborate designs were to be avoided to achieve a Spartan military appearance. In this respect, the army had been impressed and inspired by the Prussian Campaign Medal 1870-1871(Kriegesdenkmünze 1870-1871) the German’s had come up with in the Franco-Prussian War. This German medal was in bronze from melted down enemy cannons for the combatant’s version and in iron for non-combatants.

    2. Though the Taiwan Medal had dates and a fair amount of writing on them, only two kanji characters should adorn the medal reading 征清 “Seishin” (Victory over the Shin Dynasty) without extras such as dates. 

    3. The ribbon design was to be carried over from the Taiwan medal. However, dimensions needed to be adjusted to suit the design and the suspension ring was to resemble that of the orders. Initially when the army prototyped some of their designs they considered various ribbon colors to match the design, but having remembered that a good array of colors already were employed in the ribbons of orders, they saw an advantage in sticking to the same green & white ribbon color scheme for all campaign medals, so they could be recognized as war medals at a glance just by the ribbon colors.

    The 1894-1895 War Medal

    The edict announcing the introduction of the medal was signed by the Emperor on 8th October 1895. It was officially called the “1894-1895 War Medal”.

    The metal for the medal had to be switched from iron to bronze, as captured cannons were used just like in the case of the German 1870-71 campaign medal. Cannons were still bronze in those days, and those used by the Chinese were actually cannons made in the USA. In July of 1895, 12 captured bronze cannons were delivered to the Osaka mint to be made into medals, but the number of Sino-Japanese War medals struck came to a record-breaking 105,000 pieces and they soon ran out of material, so a further 41 artillery pieces had to be delivered to Osaka the next month for melting down.

    Wording did not turn out as the army hoped. The rear side said “War Medal” in the center and “27-28th Year of Meiji” around the top of the medal. China was not even mentioned as the opponent in that war. Why did they do the very opposite of what the army wanted?

    This was due to diplomatic prudence not to rock the boat further in a very delicate power struggle that surfaced already within 6 days of the signing of the peace treaty between Japan and China. In this treaty, Japan officially won Taiwan and also the Liadong Peninsula from China, as a foothold to the continent. However, Russia had its own ambitions to seek territorial expansion towards the south of its borders and did not welcome Japan getting there first. So Russia teamed up with France and Germany to threaten Japan into returning the peninsula to China. Fearing a military conflict with these 3 countries, Japan was forced to back down.

    All this had happened 5 months before the finalizing of the medal’s design. Japan had already lost its newly gained territory, due to bullying from western nations, and to add insult to injury, Russia swept into the Peninsula and happily made it theirs! In this manner, the Sino-Japanese War settled old scores (Taiwan), but also already set the stage for the next major conflict with Russia, the Russo-Japanese War. The Japanese public was enraged, but the government decided to swallow the bitter pill and keep a low profile while bolstering its military. This was the drama behind the inert wording that resulted on the medal.
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  3. #13


    The obverse side featured the army regimental standard and naval ensign crossed with the emperor’s chrysanthemum on top. Although left blank, the obverse also featured a bar to maintain a degree of harmony with the 1874 War medal.

    The colors used for the ribbon were the same green and white carried over from the 1874 War Medal. Only the width of the bands of these colors was altered. This carryover of green and white for the war medal ribbon continued further into the Boxer Rebellion Medal, but ended there and did not continue into the Russo-Japanese War Medal.

    The Sino-Japanese War Medal was also the first war medal to receive the hook and eyelet mounting provisions on the rear of the ribbon. From this point onwards, the official drawing of the medal attached to the Edict introducing the medal also clearly depicted the hook and eyelet. This reflected the, by now, established practice of wearing the medals on the uniforms.

    Because of the large number of medals to be awarded, which was roughly 40 times that of the issue number for the previous 1874 War Medal, they encountered a clerical dilemma when it was time to start filling in the 105,000 sheets of citations. They realized that they had to issue the medals in batches, but if citations were also to be dated by batches, the spread of various dates would create huge problems in entering the titles of the recipients.

    Soldiers could get promoted or be awarded orders or die of war wounds in between, so they could not see a way to have varying citation dates and yet match it with fully up-to-date titles as of those dates. In Japan, one’s title included an imperial court rank as well as the classes of orders one had received. As all these honors conferred to an individual needed to appear as an integral part of a person’s title in the citation, getting them all correct required back-dating.

    On 29th November 1895 a memo declared that all citations were to have a back-dated nominal issue date of “November 18th 1895”, the day Taiwan finally fell and brought the war to an end. So the status and titles of everyone as of that date got entered in the citation. This practice continued for all medals after this precedent and the selected date was called 論功行賞日 Ronkou Koshobi (date to discuss merits and issue awards), which had nothing to do with the actual awarding date, which came later.

    This date in Samurai days meant the presentation to one's lord of enemy heads one took in battle for which one was rewarded based on whose heads they were. (As a side note, after the counting and identifying, all the heads got buried together in a grave, which was called 首塚 Kubizuka or Head mound. Surprisingly archeologists today consistently find 30% of such skulls to be female in the mounds of battles that date from the 16th century and cite this as proof that female warriors regularly fought beside the men in those days.)

    From this campaign medal a smaller sized citation was issued, which was clearly distinguishable from citations for orders
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  4. #14


    The Boxer Rebellion Medal

    The Rebellion of the Boxers

    After successfully bullying Japan out of the peninsula she had won in the Sino-Japanese War, Russia, Germany, France and even the UK all pounced on China and claimed territory. The Boxer Rebellion was the Chinese reaction to such imperialistic action taken by these western nations and had its initial epicenter in the area that the Germans had taken from China. It started as a local xenophobic anti-Christian rebellion, but soon it spread like wildfire, and even Beijing got occupied by these rebels. In the end, the Empress Dowager, who should have crushed the uprising, did the exact opposite, and rashly declared war against the western powers on 21st June 1900.

    As a result, the rebellion snowballed into China’s war against the allied forces of Japan, US, UK, Germany, Austria, Russia, Italy and France. Of the 8 nations to send troops to China, Japan and Russia dispatched the largest contingent, as the US was already busy with the Philippine-American War and UK was in the Boer War. The biggest crisis for the allied nations in this war was that 925 of their members such as diplomats, as well as 3,000 Chinese Christians were trapped in an area of Beijing and had to endure a 2-month seize until rescued in mid August 1900, as the allies took Beijing.
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  5. #15


    Background to the Medal’s Design Development

    In Japan, discussions regarding awarding of a war medal for the engagement started in the spring of 1901.

    A memo from February of 1901 proposed that although the incident did not involve Japan officially declaring war on China, it clearly merited a campaign medal. (In the army’s opinion, War medals were intended only for officially declared wars with foreign powers.) However unlike the Sino-Japanese War, which was a monumental feat that rightly deserved a special honor medal, the Boxer Rebellion engagement involved only part of the military, cooperating with other allied countries, so carrying on with the default option of the campaign medal template of 1875 was deemed appropriate.

    Therefore the memo recommended that those who already had the 1874 War medal should be awarded a Boxer Rebellion Bar to go above the Taiwan bar, so that the number of conflicts with foreign nations would be represented at a glance, by the number of the bars. Those who didn’t have the 1874 medal were to get an identical medal with the Boxer Rebellion bar and date on the back.

    To this proposal a counter argument was given in a memo that said it was incorrect to assume that the 1875 system had stipulated that further campaigns would be commemorated as bars to be added to the medal, as no such regulation had ever actually been put down on paper. Therefore if any kind of war medal were to be issued, a new edict needed to be issued from scratch anyway. This is what I meant, when I pointed out earlier that the 1874 War Medal had been launched without the due process of the law.

    Plans for Boxer Medals by the Allies Makes Japan Hesitate

    Then on 10th April 1901, the Japanese ambassador to the UK reported that the UK government had decided to award campaign medals for the Boxer Incident to its soldiers who had participated in the campaign. However, they saw little sense in each country issuing its own medal and rather proposed to Germany that they should jointly commission a medal to be made in Paris and buy those for awarding. The report added however that the Germans had not responded yet to this idea. The type of scheme that later bore fruit as the WW1 Victory Medal had already been proposed at this time.

    Things started to get even more confusing in the summer of that year, when precedents set by countries such as Germany and Russia addressed the combatants as well as the noncombatants by setting up two classes of medals for the Boxer Rebellion. So in the end of July, the Foreign Minister wrote to the Minister of the Army that Germany had instituted two classes of the medal that year on 15th May. The report gave details of the China-Denkmünze ( China 1900 Campaign medal), the bronze version for the Kämpfer and the Steel version for Nichtkämpfer and how the Spange (campaign bar) system worked. Other diplomats stationed in Italy and Russia also reported in on what those countries intended to do.

    The Military wanting to revive the 1875 design clashes with Ogyu’s Decoration Bureau

    Running out of patience, on 14th August 1901, the Ministers of the Army and Navy wrote jointly to put pressure on the Decoration Bureau that now Japan was the only nation which still couldn’t make up its mind about the Boxer Rebellion Medal.

    Despite what the other countries were doing, the military leaders insisted that the mobilization of the army and navy was so limited that it did not make sense to award those who were not part of the expedition. The army had also attached a duly drafted set of regulations to introduce a medal based on the 1875 template. This document suggested that the base color of the ribbon this time should be yellow with the green lines of the 1874 medal on the edge. Thus the military was opposed to following the example of other nations in establishing a non-combatant version.

    Then Iwao Oyama, the army’s chief of General Staff cut into the debate on 17th August to say that those who served within Japan should also be acknowledged with the medal, so long as the nature of their service in the conflict counted as active military service under Military Pay Regulations Article 21. Inland service that qualified as active military service under this law counted towards pay raises and eligibility towards orders, whereas a campaign medal was only a memento conferring no such benefits and was thus the lesser of the two rewards. He said why deny the lesser reward when their services were recognized towards advancement in the bigger scheme of things?

    Finally on 9th September 1901, Ogyu, the Father of the awards and Chief of the Decoration Bureau responded with a complete proposal package with design drawings.

    Following the precedents set by other countries, their proposal distinguished between a combatant and non-combatant version. The medals were to be identical, but the ribbons were to be different. The medal was to be in silver with a diameter of 3cm and featuring the Japanese flag fluttering over the gate of Beijing under a rising sun. The combatant’s ribbon was to be white as a base color with 3 blue stripes, and the non-combatant’s version was to have a yellow base with the same blue stripes.

    Here the proposed design.
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  6. #16


    The Army Trashes Oyu’s Proposal

    The Army’s response dated 1st October 1901 was somewhat surprising in that they show a sense of diplomacy, in stark contrast to what they said after the Sino-Japanese War.

    They did not like the design, saying that a Japanese battle flag on top of Beijing’s gate would be an unwarranted insult and provocation to China. Furthermore there was too much busy detail to the design. A bolder design of a different motif was desired. In the event that the Decoration Bureau found it difficult, “carrying over the same design as the Sino-Japanese Medal would be an acceptable solution, though we by no means insist.”

    They also made a point that the two different classes of ribbons may become indistinguishable at night, so the yellow base for the non-combatant award should be changed to red. A further problem that they identified was that the proposed scheme would exclude Depot staff and other supply transport personnel on site of the conflict from the combatant’s award, which was in conflict with the army’s regulation for acknowledging front line duty. They proposed detailed changes on who could be eligible for which medal, the details of which I will not get into.

    The 1900 War Medal

    It is clear that the army had totally trashed the design proposal from the government, but I have not yet located any material that tells us how things went from here to the final design. The Boxer Rebellion Medal was officially called the 33rd Year of Meiji War Medal (1900 War Medal) and approved with the Emperor’s signature on 19th April 1902.
    The design was redone from scratch, the metal switched to copper and it was only one class of medal, instead of two as with medals issued by the other allied nations.

    The end product was a cross between the two medals that the army always seemed to be quite fond of, the 1875 template and the Sino-Japanese War Medal. The silhouette and the chrysanthemum were clear carry-overs from the Sino-Japanese War Medal, but the bar saying “Shin (Dynasty) Incident” and the observe of the medal only saying “Campaign Medal” and on the rear “Great Japanese Empire, Meiji 33” as well as the ribbon colors were all based on the 1875 template. Only the Phoenix was the new element.

    I have 2 citations for that medal and they are both dated 10th May 1902, which would be the nominal date they selected. Of course it would have been nice to be able to date it to August 1900, when Beijing was taken, but naturally one could not backdate it to predate the edict that established the medal itself and create a historical paradox of giving out awards not yet established.
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  7. #17


    War Medals for the Period 1904 to 1934

    I will now briefly cover the war medals for the period 1904 to 1934 in photos. I will be showing you the medal, the case and the citation in that order.

    1904-1905 War Medal (Russo-Japanese War)

    Institution Date: 30th March 1906
    Nominal award date: 1st April 1905
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  8. #18


    1914-1915 War Medal (WW1)

    Institution Date: 5th November 1915
    Nominal award date: 7th November 1915, (1 year anniversary of the fall of the German Fortress in Tsingtau/Qingdao).
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  9. #19


    1914-1920 War Medal (WW1 and Siberian Intervention)

    Institution Date: 10th March 1920
    Nominal award date: 1st November 1920
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  10. #20


    1931-1934 Incident War Medal (Manchurian Incident)

    Institution Date: 23rd July 1934
    Nominal award date: 29th April 1934
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